History of Chinese Calligraphy – The Golden Age of Chinese Calligraphy: Han Dynasty and the Age of Text

The Formation of a Literati Class During Han Dynasty as an Ascendant for the Tradition of Chinese Calligraphy

After only a decade and a half, the Qin Dynasty fell apart. However the Han nation, under the direction of Liu Bang, quickly defeated the 18 Kingdoms to reunify China. The name for the Han Dynasty thus comes from the name of the ancient prinipality of of Han, in modern-day Si Chuan and Southern Shaanxi. Unlike the fall of the Zhou, the 18 Kingdoms period was only a few years long, and the Imperial model was rapidly reasserted. (Han dynasty map) Central to the success of the Imperial model was the dedication of a class of scribes, officials and courtiers referred to collectively as the ‘literati’. These men (they were usually men) of letters provided the centralized government and social institutions with legitimacy by carrying out and contributing to the political discourse of their times.

The Cult of Personality: The Biographical Epoch and its Impact on Chinese Calligraphy

Where once Chinese politics and religion had focused intently on the lofty enterprises of Gods and Kings, the Han saw the development of a much more individualized and nuanced conception of personal worth. In particular, the biographies of Sima Qian (司馬遷/Ssuma Ch’ien) present us with an unprecedented focus on the personal actions and worthiness of individual courtiers who mere decades before would have labored and died in relative obscurity. In the Han, it was not necessary that one have clear claim to a royal lineage: proper public conduct and comportment was lauded alongside the effective governing of nations. It was this new focus on individual actions as part and parcel of the Imperial project that allowed ‘personal’ artistic styles to gain currency, both within the Han and for successive dynasties.

Cultural Institutions and Canon: Confucians and Taoists During Han Dynasty

One aspect of Han culture that enabled such a coherent literati culture was the emergence of Confucianism and Taoism as the philosophical and religious core of all Chinese culture.

In very pragmatic ways, the teachings of Confucius established and codified the structure of society from one’s relationships with immediate family to the proper conduct and respect for both superiors and subordinates. The Imperial endorsement of these ideas solidified a culture of hierarchy that was able to survive the more immediate shifts in political life, from decade to decade and emperor to emperor.

Taoism, on the other hand, provided the Han with a coherent metaphysics that was able to account for and assert the correspondence of all actions to a totalizing universal mechanics of cause and effect. The theories of Yin-Yang, Wu Xing and others postulated that all things operated and came into being according to specific interactions between forces that could be predicted and, more than this, controlled. The basic assertion that the world was knowable encouraged the literati class to begin the project of discerning the hierarchies implicit in all things. Notions of moral value were inextricably linked to a universalizing perspective.

The Awakening of Personal Styles of Calligraphy During Han Dynasty

While the focus of artworks in preceding times had usually been either purely aesthetic or directly disposed toward ritual effectiveness, the Han saw the emergence of new genres of art whose purpose was far more personal. A burgeoning poetic culture, coupled with the already pervasive emphasis on writing as a powerful and expressive act lead to the emergence of the so-called ‘personal styles’ and initiated the calligraphy tradition as we know it today.

The Cursive and Running Styles were created in the Han. In addition, individual artists gained notoriety for the first time ever. Although the extreme antiquity of this period means that few, if any, of their works survived, the calligraphy of Zhang Zhi and Liu De Sheng, among others, was celebrated even in later dynasties. By the end of the Han, calligraphy as a scholarly art, focused on the artistic expression of the individual, was well established.